Cavaliers are in a position of trust
Cavs coach Mike Brown has emphasized this message: chemistry=trust
Zydrunas Ilgauskas: Cavs are self-policing group with no "knuckleheads"
Cleveland's togetherness as a team is demonstrated best on the defensive end
He isn't looking happy today, after his Cavaliers followed their beating by the Lakers with a loss Tuesday at Indiana in which the Pacers outscored them 3-2 in the final 0.8 seconds. In the bigger scheme, however, Cleveland coach Mike Brown has been almost exultant throughout his team's breakout season.
"He was his own worst critic, and he would beat himself up a lot trying to make this team better,'' center Zydrunas Ilgauskas said. "He's still the same way -- he'll hold you accountable for everything, he's still very detail-oriented. But he just smiles more this year.''
Who really cares if Mike Brown is smiling? When it happens at a high-pressure franchise like Cleveland, the coach's humor turns into a symptom of good times to come.
"It's just a feeling of trust that you have with this group,'' said Brown, who in his fourth season with Cleveland has become a favorite to win Coach of the Year. "It's at a level that exceeds -- that definitely exceeds -- the level of the previous three teams.''
This is one of those chicken-or-egg things. Are the Cavs happy because they're a 39-11 championship contender? Or are they nearly even in the East with the defending champion and top-seeded Celtics as a result of their happiness? Brown believes the latter question is more relevant than the former.
"What [GM] Danny [Ferry] and I were beating our heads about this summer was, when you're talking about a championship team, what do you need?'' Brown said. "You need a good team, you need a superstar, you need a couple of stars around that superstar, you need consistency -- all of the normal things. And the thing that everybody says you need is chemistry. But what is chemistry? I don't know.
"Finally I came up with [the perspective that] chemistry is trust. At our precamp dinner that you have before the season opens, that's all we talked about. I had a 10-minute speech on trust, how trust equals chemistry. I had it on the board, had the formula laid out just like an equation. That's all I talked about. We ate, and that's it. No X's and O's, no we're going to do this here or win this many games or we've got to win the division or conference. We've just got to find chemistry. It means trust.''
The Cavs' moves have been made over the years like a trapeze artist leaping from one bar to the next. They became the rare worst team to land the No. 1 pick in the lottery (and the rights to LeBron James) ... They were sold to a young, take-charge ownership group that learned the business the hard way while trying to hire Larry Brown as team president even as he was still coaching the Pistons to the NBA Finals; Brown arranged for the hirings of Mike Brown and Ferry (and isn't it obvious now that Larry knew what he was doing?) ... In the following years, LeBron expressed frustration at the archaic, walk-it-up offense as Brown emphasized a foundation of defense ... Teammates came and went as Ferry continued to turn over the roster in that search for the kind of talent that results in trust. Now they appear to have it, or at least something very close to it.
"We police ourselves, we don't let anybody step out of line and we make sure that everybody does what they're supposed to do,'' Ilgauskas said. "It starts with LeBron, because if he falls in line and he follows all the rules, then everybody has to fall in. It starts with Ben [Wallace], who won a championship, and Mo [Williams] and me and everybody else. We have good veteran players who have not had any problem in the past with anybody. We don't have any knuckleheads.''
The season sweep by the Lakers on Sunday in Cleveland demonstrated that the Cavs may be a tier below Los Angeles in overall talent (without forgetting that the Cavs have established a three-year trend of elevating their play in the postseason, a continuing likelihood as they keep growing as a team over the second half of the season). Ferry continues to investigate trades before the Feb. 19 deadline that could advance his team in their ultimate races with the Celtics, Lakers and four-time champion Spurs.
Could the Cavs package Wally Szczerbiak's expiring contract to the Suns for Amare Stoudemire? Might the 12-40 Clippers be willing to save money by unloading Marcus Camby? Can Ferry land this year's version of Rasheed Wallace (who helped the 2003-04 Pistons win the championship as a cheap pickup from Atlanta) without giving up, say, the top seven players in his rotation? Last Friday he was escorting me into his office for an interview when Ferry did an about-face and led me out to a nearby conference room. He had realized (with a hearty laugh) that the whiteboards in his office were filled with prospective trades -- all involving other teams, he said, as he was trying to chart the currents and tides of the prevailing market.
A crucial dynamic of this team is its resistance to trade rumors and other agitations. Szczerbiak made six of his first nine shots (including four three-pointers) Sunday despite trade speculation as well as a broken nose protected by an ill-fitting mask. In fact, the mask's protruding beak combined with a hideous canary-yellow uniform to give him less the appearance of a terrific shooter and more the look of a bizarre avian mascot. If only he had flapped his wings to celebrate each field goal.
Szczerbiak has shown year after year he's a tough-minded shooter, and it's because of approaches like his that the Cavs persist, regardless of next week's trading deadline or the summer of 2010 when LeBron becomes a free agent.
"Most of the stuff is overblown in the media and we have no control over it,'' Ilgauskas said. "These days you have five ESPN channels and it's 24/7 sports, so they've got to talk about something. We know what's going on with us, and LeBron likes being here, and whatever time he's going to become a free agent, the decision is going to be left up to him. Of course I want him to stay, but he's a grown man and this is his decision and we respect that. But who knows who's going to be on that team anyway [in 2010]? This is our chance, this is our year and we know we have him here this year, so we're not worried about the future. We want to win a championship.''
Whether they trade or not, the Cavs will race back and forth with the Celtics over the next two months for the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage in a potential conference finals Game 7 in early June. The acquisition of All-Star point guard Williams has filled Cleveland's need for backcourt shooting to spread the floor for James behind his big, deep front line. Not only has Mike Brown succeeded in establishing defense as a priority, but he has also developed as an offensive coach to the extent that the 7-3 Ilgauskas is now a worrisome threat at the three-point line, where he is 11-of-24 this season.
But it's that reliance on defense, on trusting teammates to rotate and cover for one another, that promises to take bloom this spring in Cleveland. It's the reason the Cavs believe they can move past the Celtics this season.
"Because we defend, we'll give ourselves a chance to stay in ball games, whether it's the regular season when we're not playing well or a playoff game when it's really tough,'' Ferry said. "We want to continue to build on that identity that we're a defense-first team. If you look at the teams that have won the first or second seed and where are they ranked defensively every year, they're always pretty good. We look at that as much as we look at the standings.''